Friday, November 27, 2015

Fred Astaire

When I was somewhere around ten or eleven, I went to a bar mitzvah for this kid I knew, Howard. Our fathers were co-workers and mutual friends. There was a reception afterward, in which there was much music and dancing.

Howard and I were friends, too, though we rarely saw each other. He had a sister, Susan, though for once I wasn't attracted to her. I doubt I even thought of her in those terms, though if memory serves, she was good-looking.

Anyway, at this reception, I felt like letting my hair down for once and I danced a lot. I'm not sure, but I think I might have been slightly self-conscious about it beforehand, and I might have conveyed this to Howard and/or Susan, because weeks later, I got a card from Susan thanking me for coming, in which she specifically complimented my dancing. You can imagine how good that made me feel.

To be a great dancer was an occasional childhood fantasy of mine. Naturally, Michael Jackson was my inspiration. My pals and I vogued at our high school prom, but sadly, I don't recall any slow dancing I might have done with my girlfriend. Maybe I didn't know how; maybe I didn't wanna embarrass myself in front of the guys; I don't remember for sure, and I wish I could. I must have slow danced with her, though.

In college, I was into grunge, and that meant moshing, which doesn't involve any particular talent - just a certain ruggedness and a high threshold for pain. Surviving the pit at a Lollapalooza remains a favorite music-related memory.

Astaire with frequent cinematic
dance partner Ginger Rogers
My most romantic dancing memory involves a girl I've told you about before. It was at her house. While she was away for a moment, I browsed through her CDs and spotted a CD single of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," as beautiful a song as you're likely to hear. When she came back, I put the CD on and asked her to dance. I wasn't embarrassed about it this time.

I held my arms out, expecting to dance the way they do in the movies, with one arm around her waist and the other extended outward, holding her hand. To my surprise, though, she wrapped both her arms around me. I did the same to her and we didn't dance so much as move back and forth to the music. We didn't say anything. We didn't need to. When the song ended, we kissed. I'd have to say it was one of the most perfect moments in my entire life.

It's probably an old-fashioned fantasy to want to sweep a girl off her feet through dance - not John Travolta-in-Saturday Night Fever dancing, but with an orchestra playing, her in a fancy dress and me in a classy tux, the way Fred Astaire used to do. Of course, he was much more than a ballroom dancer; the man could also tap dance up a storm. I think most people, however, remember him best for those sensual, dreamy numbers he did with a variety of actresses throughout his spectacular career, especially in the ten films he made with Ginger Rogers.

In her book on marriage in the movies, I Do and I Don't, Jeanine Basinger talks about "love teams," a pairing of male and female actors over a course of different films that in the public's mind, linked the two romantically, on the screen if not in real life. Astaire and Rogers were one such team:
...Astaire and Rogers were the living metaphor of a perfect union, and they didn't have to play married to show it. Their swooning, yearning, swaying-like-two-chic-cobras romantic numbers spoke to audiences about desire, but also about a spectacularly balanced, perfectly beautiful physicality. Theirs was a marriage set to music, and their dance-floor coupling was real and romantic. (Fred and Ginger seldom kiss in their films. There's no need for it. Their sex life takes place when they have on their dancing shoes.)
Before Ginger, though, and Rita and Cyd and Leslie and all the rest, Astaire's first dance partner was his sister Adele. As kids they had a dance act that took them from vaudeville to Broadway and London. When Adele got married, the partnership broke up, and though he found solo success on Broadway, and eventually Hollywood, he was understandably reluctant to pair up with someone else on a regular basis again. The success of Astaire and Rogers in their first movie together, Flying Down to Rio, changed his mind, and the rest is history.

While there are a number of actors today who can dance, and dance well, none of them have made a career of it the way Astaire did, partly because musicals aren't as popular as they once were, but also because Astaire was unique. He belongs to the Old Hollywood era, the one closely tied to vaudeville and Broadway; where the hunger for the kind of glamour associated with RKO and MGM musicals was at its peak. Still, if the continued success of Dancing With the Stars is any indication, we still crave a touch of that kind of glamour, exemplified by the dancing of Fred Astaire.

Next: Cecil B. DeMille

Movies with Fred Astaire:
Top Hat

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann


  1. Rich, you really touched a spot in my heart that has been there ever since I first saw Astaire and Rogers as a kid. Your description of their dancing as the only love-making they needed in the movies is spot-on. Cheek To Cheek and Let's Face the Music and Dance are their best, in my opinion. Stories within stories -- they were the best. Loved this article.

  2. Thanks, but that part you mentioned was me quoting from Jeanine Basinger's book. I'm typing this from my cell phone because my laptop's getting repaired. When I get it fixed, I'll go back and make that section look like a proper quotation.


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